Black Struggle

Thoughts on the Emancipation Proclamation (I)

This article by Marxist scholar George Novack, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party for decades, was written in 1963 as the civil rights movement was dismantling the Jim Crow system of segregation through the sustained mass action of Black working people and their allies. Almost 60 years later it remains relevant to today’s ongoing battles against racism as well as to understanding the vital history of the African American nationality and its indomitable battle for freedom and equality.

World-Outlook is publishing this essay as part of marking U.S. Independence Day this year. As Novack points out, U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, a Radical Republican, urged Lincoln in 1862 to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on the Fourth of July because the most radical abolitionists wanted to destroy the slave power to fulfill the original democratic ideals of the Republic. Lincoln rejected the proposal and waited another six months before issuing the proclamation.

Novack does not look at the Emancipation Proclamation in isolation from the context in which it was issued. In fact, he refers to it as a “a pallid document” with “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Instead, he urges us to see it in its rightful place as the U.S. Civil War[1] was transformed from a contest Lincoln and others first waged to save the union into a genuine revolution that could only be won by ridding every inch of the United States of the horrors of chattel slavery.

Novack is focused on the emancipation of those who were enslaved, rather than the proclamation itself. “In retrospect,” as he explains, “it can be seen how emancipation advanced step by step as the Civil War developed, overcoming one obstacle after another.” He notes that despite the weaknesses of the document, “The proclamation gave official sanction to the Negro’s efforts to free themselves; it opened the Union armies to them.” This proved decisive in crushing the Confederacy and defeating the armies of the slavocracy.

More than one idea in this article will be of interest to those fighting racism today. Novack poses the question: “Will the mutual estrangement between the privileged white workers and the Negro movement, fostered by the divisive strategy of the rich, be everlasting?”

He answers this way: “It would be unrealistic to underestimate the vigilant, unremitting efforts it will take, to purge the poison of racial prejudice which capitalism has injected into the bloodstream of American life. Yet the day will dawn when the white workers must come to understand that discrimination is not only a crime against their colored brothers and unworthy of a democratic society but injurious and costly to their own welfare.”

Change along these lines was one outcome of the powerful movement to end Jim Crow. It was reflected most recently in the large numbers of working people and youth of all skin colors who joined the explosion of protest last summer, catalyzed by the horrific police murder of George Floyd. Further change can be expected as mass struggle continues and new layers of the population recognize the truth of Novack’s arguments.

As we have noted in republishing earlier articles from the 1950s and 1960s, aspects of the writing may seem dated or unclear today. References provided in the footnotes will lead readers to these earlier essays that are annotated with a few explanatory remarks addressing such questions of context. For example, the terms “Negro” or “colored” used in the article to refer to African Americans may sound anachronistic, or even offensive, if taken out of context. At the time this article was written, the terms were still commonly used among many Black people.

This essay was first published in 1963 in the International Socialist Review magazine under the title “Some Thoughts on the Emancipation Proclamation.” The text is taken from the online library “George Novack Internet Archive 2005.”[2]

Subheadings and footnotes are by Because of its length, we are publishing this article in two parts, the first of which follows.


By George Novack

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect a century ago on January 1, 1863. The freedom heralded by that decree is far from won; slavery was buried but Jim Crow is very much alive.

Despite this excessive “gradualism,” the Emancipation Proclamation stands as a monumental landmark in the advancement of liberty, not only for the colored people, but for all Americans. Even though Lincoln resisted Senator Sumner’s plea to issue the proclamation on the Fourth of July, this charter of freedom ranks with the Declaration of Independence in our revolutionary heritage.

However, the vast discrepancy between the promise held out by the 1863 pronouncement and the performance of the possessors of power in the hundred years since presents problems for historians as well as for the political defenders of the existing order. What caused this failure and where should the responsibility for the perpetuation of Negro inequality be placed?

* * *

The Civil War ushered in the Second American Revolution. This was the most momentous event in the entire nineteenth century for out of it came the capitalist colossus of our own day. The Emancipation Proclamation was the greatest event in that conflict. Its significance—and shortcomings—cannot be understood except in the context of the Civil War and the divergent interest and aims of the social forces on the winning side.

The Civil War erupted as the climax to a prolonged contest for command over the country between the Northern businessmen and the Southern planters. Ever since the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the moving force in American history and the pivot of its political affairs had been the now muffled, now acute struggle for supremacy between the beneficiaries of slave labor and the upholders of free soil and free labor. Just as the rule of Big Business is central to the problems of our generation, so throughout the first half of the nineteenth century the major social issue before the American people was: what is to be done about the slave power?

In the decades before the Civil War the cotton nobility became dominant not only in the South but over the nation. Its representatives and accomplices controlled the White House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the armed forces and charted the main lines of foreign and domestic policy.

Lincoln’s election in 1860 signified that the slaveholders had lost control of the federal government. The Confederacy was established in February 1861 and its army opened the Civil War with the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April. For the North, the war began as a battle to “save the union” but became the Second American Revolution that destroyed chattel slavery.

1860: Slaveholders lose control of federal gov’t

This sovereignty of the slaveholders was first seriously challenged by the Republican party organized in 1854. This was a coalition composed of the rising industrialists, the small farmers of the Northwest, the urban middle classes and part of the wage workers. All these elements opposed to the slave power rallied around the young party.

When Lincoln was elected President in 1860, the long-established balance of power in national politics was profoundly upset. Until that point the slaveholders could count on a pliant and even servile administration to do their bidding at Washington. The Republican assumption of command meant that the authority and resources of the federal government had slipped from their grasp and were being taken over by their foremost rivals, the Northern manufacturers and their associates.

Because of the grave difficulties besetting their antiquated system of production, the Southern planters and slave-dealers could ill-afford to lose possession of the heights of power they had so long and profitably occupied. Like other ruling classes on the skids, they placed defense of their privileges before the democratic decision of the electorate. Up to 1860 the wealthier and more conservative planters had rejected the arguments of the Southern “fire-eaters” that departure from the Union was the cure for their ills. Now they swallowed the desperate remedy of secession, formed the Confederacy and fired on Fort Sumter.

The immediate cause of the Civil War was therefore political: the shift of supremacy from the cotton barons: to the industrial bourgeoisie and their allies. The secessionist coup d’etat confronted Lincoln’s government with the choices of resubmission to the dictates of the slavocracy or taking the field of battle to clinch by bloody warfare its constitutional triumph in the 1860 elections. The loyal states mobilized to beat down the defiance of the “lords of the lash.”

The statesmen on both sides brought forward legalistic and constitutional arguments. But these covered up a far deeper issue. Behind the embattled governments and armies were two antagonistic forms of property and wealth production. The Confederacy was conceived in chattel slavery, property in human beings; the Union rested upon wage-labor and freehold farming. The planters had plunged into secession in order to safeguard their “peculiar institution” at all hazards; its preservation was bound up with their victory. The fate of the slave system hung on the outcome of the Civil War.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis (left) and Vice-president Alexander Stephens. While some in the North argued that slavery was not the reason for the onset of the Civil War, the slaveholders knew otherwise. “The prevailing ideas… of the Old Constitution were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature,” Stephens declared. “This was an error . . . Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon, the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that Slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” (Photographed by Beady)

The founders of the Confederacy were far more cognizant of this fundamental feature of the conflict than were their Northern adversaries. In a grandiloquent defense of the Confederate Constitution on March 16, 1861, Vice-President Alexander Stephens declared: “The new Constitution has put to rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution.

“Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as ’the rock upon which the Old Union would split’ . . . The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the Old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically . . . These ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error . . .

Confederacy: ‘The Negro is not equal to the white man’

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon, the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that Slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. (Applause.) This, our new Government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Stephens was all wrong in his assertion that the Confederate Constitution had “put to rest forever” agitation about slavery. Actually, secession had given crucial importance and extreme urgency to the issue. The United States could not be reunited until slavery itself had been “put to rest forever.”

But in the opening stages of the Civil War the Republican high command did not view or approach the situation in this light. In the immense upheaval convulsing the country they believed it possible and desirable to leave standing the underlying cause of it all! They had held this position from the birth of the Republican organization which was not designed to be a party of social revolution but of political reform.

The manufacturing and business interests at its head sought protective tariffs, transcontinental rail lines, lucrative government contracts, favorable immigration and banking policies; the representatives of the small farmers and middle classes in its ranks wanted homesteads, better transportation facilities, educational grants, etc.

The Republican leaders were resolved to wrest political predominance from the planters, bridle the aggressive ambitions of the slave power on the foreign field, and fence in their domain. But they were willing to leave slavery alone if the Southern cotton magnates would accommodate themselves to the changed relationship of forces. Again and again they declared: we have no intention of disturbing or destroying slavery and are ready to give firm guarantees of its continuance wherever it legally exists.

Just as the upper crust among the planters had resisted secessionism in the 1850s so the most influential Republicans indignantly and sincerely repudiated Abolitionism as subversive of the established order and the devilish fomenter of slave insurrection. Seward, Lincoln and others approved the hanging of John Brown. It took the bourgeois heads of the North several more years to come abreast of the requirements of their revolution than it did their slave-holding counterparts in the South to recognize and act upon the imperatives of their counter-revolution.

Republican leadership conciliated with slavery

The Republican leadership followed this course of conciliation with slavery for over a year after the Civil War broke out. In his Inaugural address Lincoln reassured the slaveholders in these words: “1 have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists; I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” As late as July 26, 1861, after the rout at Bull Run, the Senate, by a vote of 30 to 5, resolved that the war “was not being prosecuted for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights and established institutions” of the seceding states.

Since the slaveholders would not accept second-rank in a Northern-dominated Union, and the Republican coalition would not forfeit its legally acquired supremacy, decision could only be rendered by an armed fight to the death—and this portended the death of slavery.

Lincoln’s government was divided over the goals of the war and how to achieve them. U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens, pictured above, was one of the most determined of the Radical Republicans who insisted on political and military action aimed at crushing the Confederacy and eradicating chattel slavery.

The Abolitionists and other consistent opponents of the slave power saw this clearly and urged Lincoln to conduct the war in a revolutionary manner by manumitting the slaves. On November 7, 1861, Marx and Engels wrote from London in a dispatch to Die Presse of Vienna: “The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, between the system of slavery and the system of free labor. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”

If, as Secretary of State Seward later remarked, “The Emancipation Proclamation was uttered in the first gun fired at Fort Sumter,” he and his colleagues took a long time to get the message. For the Republican directorate the question of slavery was subordinate to the preservation of the Union under their own hegemony and so they started to wage a hesitating, purely military campaign against the rebels, which was highly ineffective. Even after losing hope of compromise with the secessionists, they feared to antagonize the upper classes in the border slave states by tampering with their accumulated wealth and labor supply.

The government feared to arm the free Negroes and enroll them in the Union forces. It was even more indisposed to encourage the slaves to rise up against their masters, sabotage production, and escape from the plantations. In 1861 Lincoln overruled General Fremont’s order freeing the slaves of all Missourians supporting the Confederacy and as late as May 1862 he voided General Hunter’s action emancipating the slaves in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.

Radical Republicans push ruthless measures to combat slavery

The Administration’s refusal to strike any blows at slavery provoked angry protests throughout the North and chilled the enthusiasm of its foreign friends for the Union cause. Almost from the day that armed conflict began, the Republican regime was subjected to a tremendous tug of war between the conservative faction led by Secretary of State Seward, which wanted to maintain the status quo, and the Radicals headed by Secretary of the Treasury Chase, Senator Sumner and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, who pressed for political and military action aimed at crushing the Confederacy and demolishing the slave power. To Stevens, “the vile ingredient called conservatism” appeared “worse than secessionism.”

Lincoln vacillated between these opposing tendencies. As a private person, he detested slavery. As a moderate Republican, he proposed to solve the problem by gradual and compensated emancipation followed by colonization abroad of the former chattels. He offered this scheme to the border states whose officials rejected it.

Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. The Radical and Abolitionist leaders deeply distrusted Lincoln for his caution and proclivity to compromise. The emancipationists were not all of one breed. Abolitionist agitators like Douglass and Wendell Phillips were bent on destroying the slave power in order to get justice and equality for African Americans and fulfill the democratic ideals of the Republic.

The Radical and Abolitionist leaders deeply distrusted the President for his caution and compromise on this all-important issue. Frederick Douglass denounced “the slow-coach at Washington.” Wendell Phillips, speaking at a Republican rally in Boston, was applauded when he accused Lincoln of treason and urged his impeachment for nullifying General Hunter’s proclamation.

The emancipationists were not all of one breed. The big bourgeois Radicals in high posts like Chase, Stanton and Wade insisted on ruthless measures to combat the slavocracy in order to clear the field for the unhampered expansion of industrial capitalism. Their upper-class motivation was to emerge more clearly during Reconstruction.[3]

The Abolitionist agitators like Douglass and Phillips were bent on destroying the slave power in order to get justice and equality for the Negroes and fulfill the democratic ideals of the Republic.

(To be continued)


[1] For a concise introduction to the U.S. Civil War see The U.S. Civil War: Its Place in History recently published on in three parts: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

[2] Written: 1963. First Published: International Socialist Review, Spring 1963, Volume 24, No. 24, pages 35-40. Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido. HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters. Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005. This work is completely free:

[3] For a concise introduction to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, see Two Lessons of Radical Reconstruction, recently published on in two parts: Part I and Part II.

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1 reply »

  1. “Wendell Phillips, speaking at a Republican rally in Boston, was applauded when he accused Lincoln of treason and urged his impeachment for nullifying General Hunter’s proclamation.”

    I am trying to track down any citation or reproduction of the speech Phillips made that is cited by Novack. Any idea on how to do so?

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